Military Update: For eight straight years, Congress has failed to pass a defense appropriations bill on time, forcing the armed services in wartime to operate for months at the start of every fiscal year under restrained spending authority called a continuing resolution or CR.
CRs freeze defense spending at prior-year levels, block the start of new programs, delay expiration of old programs, and drive up procurement costs by billions of dollars by dismantling the efficiency of multiyear weapon contracts.
For the current fiscal year, budget handcuffs on the military are tighter than at any time since the government shutdown of 2013. More than six months into fiscal 2017, the military continues to operate under a CR, in this case the second desperate budget patch that lawmakers have applied since October.
As usual Republicans and Democrats are paralyzed by partisanship. Republicans want only defense budgets to get relief from spending controls imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011. Democrats want relief from BCA for domestic programs too. So far claims of deteriorating readiness across the military aren’t enough to stir an old fashion compromise from this generation of lawmakers.
At a hearing Wednesday before the House Armed Services Committee, service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines Corps predicted readiness disasters if Congress fails to pass a $578 billion defense money bill, or even a $30 billion defense supplemental budget that the White House requested in early March.
With the current CR set to expire April 28 and Congress taking a two-week break for Easter and Passover, military leaders fear lawmakers will take the easy path again and vote for a third CR to cover the last five months of fiscal 2017.
If that occurs, service chiefs warned, then by early summer training will stop across much of the military. New recruits won’t be sent to boot camp. Most aircraft at stateside bases will be grounded. Ships repairs will stop. Only next-to-deploy ground units will see critical training continue. Most training center rotations and large scale exercises will be suspended. Routine maintenance of equipment will be halted and thousands of military families will see transfer orders put on hold.
Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.) got a sense of the depth of frustration felt by the chiefs when she suggested that CRs might be the “new normal” and asked if military leaders shouldn’t find more effective ways to deal with that reality.
“I don’t accept it as a new normal, Congresswoman,” snapped Gen. Mark A. Milley, Army chief of staff. “Candidly, failure to pass a budget, in my view both as an American citizen and chief of staff of the United States Army, constitutes professional malpractice. I don’t think we should accept it as the new normal. I think we should pass it and pass the supplemental with it. And get on with it.”
“The world is a dangerous place,” Milley continued. “And it’s becoming more dangerous…by…the…day,” he said, stringing out words for effect. “Pass the budget.”
Other chiefs soften their tone but agreed with Milley it can’t become normal to saddle the military with months of budget uncertainty every year.
Adm. John M. Richardson, chief of naval operations, said accepting CRs as normal would mean accepting the idea of giving potential adversaries a head start every year in the race to gain or sustain military dominance.
Gen. David L. Goldfein, Air Force chief of staff, said every service chief visits frontline fighting forces and can “give that speech” on why they are there, separated from family and putting their lives at risk. The hardest question to field, he said, is why Americans back home don’t seem to be paying attention.
“Are we serious about this or not? Is the risk, going forward, worth it or not? And I’m not sure if we don’t even pass a budget that we can look them in the eye and tell them that what they’re doing…is on the minds of this Congress,” he said.
By early March the House alone had passed a defense appropriations bill to cover the current year. The Senate defense appropriations subcommittee was still discussing with leadership how it should proceed.
“No one is advocating for a full-year CR for the Department of Defense,” said a committee staff member. “It has never operated under one, and we do not intend to start doing that now. We want that to be very clear.”
Details of the House-passed appropriations had been worked out with Senators with bipartisan support. The $30 billion defense supplemental, however, might not enjoy the same level of bipartisan support.
Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) noted at the House hearing that the supplemental includes $5.1 billion to fund President Trump’s new strategy for defeating ISIS, the terrorist organization still holding territory in Iraq and Syria. Garamendi pressed Milley for details. The Army chief declined to share publicly.
“I guess you would expect us to approve a plan that’s not been submitted,” Garamendi complained. So far Congress doesn’t know, he said, “where the money would be spent [or] how it would be spent.”
Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), committee chairman, said frequent deployments have done more damage to readiness “than most of us realize, requiring more time and more money to repair than is generally expected.”
Responsibility for “the current state of affairs” can be shared with “both Congress and the Obama administration, with both Republicans and Democrats, with both military and civilian leadership.”
Defense budgets, he said, “got caught up in the partisan back and forth on other issues and has even been held hostage for other priorities. We need to get back to evaluating our defense needs on their own, without regard to any agreement or disagreement we may have on other issues.”
Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said the services deserve timely funding bills. CRs, he said, are “a colossal waste of your time and also very expensive.” But Smith told the chiefs he can’t agree “that we can somehow pull defense out of the entire rest of the federal government…as if all the other money we spend on government doesn’t matter.”
Adopting a full-year CR would mean canceled training, costly maintenance delays and supply shortages across the military. But deploying forces would still be well trained and equipped and other units would still deploy if called, Goldfein said.
The Air Force chief advised adversaries listening to testimony on budget challenges to still know, if they were to challenge the U.S. military, they will lose.
“I’ll give you just one example: If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin makes a bad choice, he will face the combined economic and military might of 28 nations, and the most powerful alliance we’ve ever been part of. And that spells his loss.”
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Tom Philpott has been breaking news for and about military people since 1977. After service in the Coast Guard, and 17 years as a reporter and senior editor with Army Times Publishing Company, Tom launched "Military Update," his syndicated weekly news column, in 1994. "Military Update" features timely news and analysis on issues affecting active duty members, reservists, retirees and their families.
Tom also edits a reader reaction column, "Military Forum." The online "home" for both features is Military.com.
His critically-acclaimed book, Glory Denied, on the extraordinary ordeal and heroism of Col. Floyd "Jim" Thompson, the longest-held prisoner of war in American history, is available in hardcover and paperback.